Saturday, August 1, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Salade niçoise

When the salade niçoise arrives at the table, many people will complain “That’s not what I ordered.”
     Why is that?
     Because everyone seems to have their own idea about what goes in it.  Many times I’ve been asked, “You live in France.  Someone said I can’t put ham/cucumber/chicken in my salade niçoise.  The French do, don’t they?” Well, in Paris you can get a niçoise with a lot of things in it that you wouldn’t find if you ordered it in Provence.  Even rice and carrots.  Does that make it right?  Do we really care?
     Any salade niçoise will include tomatoes, ripe (black) olives, and some sort of greens.  Most will include potatoes, green beans, hard-boiled eggs, tuna and anchovies.  Some, to be very Mediterranean, will include artichoke hearts and some garlic.  Several times I’ve seen it served with an American touch of fresh corn.
     What you don’t want to do, under any circumstances, is put ranch dressing on a salade niçoise.  That is the bottom line.  In France you’ll only find vinaigrette dressing:  vinegar, a dab of hot mustard, salt and pepper and then the oil.  (Vinegar first so the oil will mix well.)
     This being said, and without further introduction, here is what would pass for the “real” recipe for Salade Niçoise.  The proportions will serve 6, but you can dress the plates individually rather than serve it in one large bowl, if you want.
     And yes, Drew Barrymore, it comes with the “little fishies” (see the opening scene of E.T.)

  • salad greens to line the bowl (usually Boston lettuce or red leaf lettuce)
  • 1 lb fresh thin green beans, cold
  • 2 or 3 medium-sized potatoes, cold, cooked and diced
  • 3-6 medium-sized tomatoes, ripe but still very firm
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1 c chunk tuna (about 6 oz), flaked
  • 12 anchovy fillets
  • 1 T capers
  • 1 garlic clove, cut in half
  • pitted ripe olives
  • 1 c vinaigrette
  • chopped fresh herbs such as chervil and tarragon (1 T each)
  • salt & freshly ground pepper
  • optional:  6 scallions, minced

- Cut the tips off the green beans and peel the potatoes.  Blanch the beans and cook the potatoes separately in salted boiling water until they are barely tender.  Then pour off the water, cool under running water for a few minutes or in a bowl with ice water so that they don’t continue to cook. Drain well.
- Wash the lettuce, throwing away any wilted leaves, and spin or gently pat dry.
- Dice the potatoes and cut the green beans into pieces about 2" long.
- Wash the tomatoes and cut them into four or six pieces, depending on their size
- Rub the bowl with the garlic and line the bowl with the lettuce.
- Mix the potatoes and green beans together with the capers.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Then season with a little of the vinaigrette dressing, and arrange in the bowl.
- Decorate with the tuna, anchovy fillets, olives, and the egg and tomato wedges.
- Season with the remaining vinaigrette and sprinkle the minced herbs (and optional scallions) over the top.

Two tips:
- Remember: both capers and anchovies are salty, so you might want to go easy on the salt in the vinaigrette.
- Small, French-style black olives are best, but canned olives can be substituted if necessary.  Large Greek-style olives are not recommended.  A word to the wise:  the French rarely pit their olives, so be forewarned!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Ratatouille

A few French recipes have crossed the Atlantic.  Among them is ratatouille, a recipe from the south, and more specifically from Nice (rhymes with “peace”).
     I have yet to find a French cookbook without a recipe for ratatouille.  It’s mainly a summer dish because it can really only be made from fresh produce.  Canned or frozen just doesn’t cut it.  That’s because you have to cook the various vegetables together so they can talk to each other and get acquainted.  If you just bung them all in the pot, already cooked, they won’t have much to say when you dish them up.
     There is heated discussion among French chefs as to whether you peel the vegetables or not, whether you cut them up into large or small pieces. Whether you cook them separately and then finish them off in the same pan, or whether you cook them together from the start.  But one "must" is that you stew them rather than fry them.
     There’s also conflict as to which herbs to use.  Julia Child uses only parsley.  Raymond Oliver uses a blend of fines herbes.  To my mind, you can’t make a ratatouille worth eating without at least thyme and preferably a bay leaf or two.
     One huge advantage of ratatouille is its versatility; you can eat it hot or cold.  And if you choose to eat it cold, another advantage is that you can make it in advance.  Hot, it goes perfectly with grilled fish or simple meat dishes:  roasted or broiled beef, lamb or especially chicken.  Cold, you can serve it with cold meats or spread a bit on toasted bread to make bruschetta appetizers.
     Everyone has their “correct” way to make ratatouille.  This is mine.  I prefer it not to be totally cooked down and mashed, as does Fernand Point, unless you’re going the bruschetta route.  Which is why I follow the niçoise tradition of not peeling the zucchini.  I figure they should know because they invented this dish.  I also like the eggplant to keep its shape, so I straddle the fence on peel v unpeel and like to peel it only halfway, in a striped fashion; this also is more colorful, but it’s not recommended if the eggplant skin is thick.

  • 1 lb eggplant (many small or 1 medium-sized)
  • 1 lb zucchini
  • 1 lb tomatoes
  • 2 large green bell peppers
  • ½ lb onions (preferrably yellow)
  • olive oil
  • 2-6 cloves garlic (to taste)
  • 2 springs fresh thyme (or 1 t dried)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt
  • freshly-ground pepper 

Before you start cooking, scald the tomatoes to peel them, then remove the seeds and cut them up into large pieces.  You can blanch the peppers so they’re more digestible, if this is a concern, but always remove all the seeds and membrane, then slice them and cut the slices in half lengthwise. Scrub the eggplant and zucchini.  Half peel the eggplant lengthwise so that one stripe is white and the next purple, then cut it into large chunks.  Cut the zucchini into slices about as thick as the eggplant.

Now for the cooking.

- Slice the onion thinly.  Cook it in olive oil, stirring at regular intervals, until it’s translucent but not browned.  Remember:  ratatouille should be a stew, not a fry-up.  
- When the onion is almost cooked, add the peeled garlic (either whole or pressed) and cook for about 2 more minutes.
- Put these ingredients into a large bowl while you cook the other vegetables.
- Using the same olive oil, cook the eggplant about 2 minutes, then add the zucchini and cook another 3 minutes.  Strain off the olive oil, which you can save to make a deliciously flavored vinaigrette.
- Put the eggplant and zucchini in the bowl with the onion and garlic.
- Finally, add a few drops of olive oil to the skillet and cook the tomato and the bell pepper for about 5 minutes.
- Put all the vegetables back in the skillet.  Add the thyme and bay leaf.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Turn the heat down low and cook covered for 10 minutes.  Then remove the cover and turn up the heat a bit, basting with the juices several times.  Be very careful here not to scorch the vegetables in the pan.  When only a few tablespoons of the juice is left, you’re done.

If you reheat your ratatouille, do it over very low heat.

Some recipes that specifically call themselves rataouille niçoise list fennel among the ingredients.  If you choose to do this, then use 1 head of fennel, sliced thin, and cook it with all the other vegetables.  Some cooks just add a touch of fennel seed after they’ve cooked up the vegetables.

And for those who don’t have the time (or the inclination), you can drain a can of peeled tomatoes and just stew all the vegetables together, once the onion is cooked.  It'll be close, but perhaps no cigar compared to the real deal.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Trial by fire: the baccalauréat

Outside the test center
“Passe ton bac d’abord.”
     That’s what all French children hear.  “Get your diploma first.”
     The baccalauréat is the diploma at the end of high school.  It’s the same exam with the same questions for every student in a given subject throughout the country, as well as in the outlying islands and nations that are part of France:  Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guyana, St. Barthélémy (aka St. Barts) and half the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean; farther north St. Pierre & Miquelon off the coast of Canada; La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean; New Caledonia, Tahiti and Wallis & Futuna in Oceania.

Juniors in high school take only one bac exam, and that’s in French (grammar and literature).  You could view it, I guess, as a kind of practice exam, like the PSAT that college-bound American students take in their junior year.  Except that it isn’t practice.  It counts.  It counts a lot.  All four hours of it.  Yes, you heard me right.  Four hours!  All essays.  Which is why American college tests, with their multiple-guess and true-or-false questions, came as such a shock to my daughter when she started college in the States.
     The first part of this exam is a commentary of a text - last year a text by Stendhal, Flaubert or Zola - and it counts for one-fifth of the final exam grade.  A “commentary” is a highly stylized approach to a text, and you better have the formula down pat.
     The other part of the exam is a dissertation, which has its own methodology and counts for the other four-fifths of your grade... so it’s really make-it-or-break-it.  The topic of the dissertation last year was “Do you expect a novel to transport you into the mind of a character?  Base your answer on the texts and works you have read and studied.”  Another year it was “Where does the emotion one feels when reading a poem spring from?”
     All very philosophical when you’re only 16 or 17.

All subjects besides French are tested in the senior year, which the French call “terminal”.  And I’m sure when you’re studying for it, you feel like it may prove terminal.  As I said, it’s a huge affair for a student, one that puts your mettle to the test.  Not to mention deciding which university will deign to enroll you, and thereby determining - for all intents and purposes - your entire future.  Nerves of steel come in handy here, but what teenager has those?
     The first senior-year test is always philosophy, and that’s scheduled for today, Wednesday.  Students have the choice of three questions, it being a free country.  Here are a few examples from the past:
     - Is moral action possible without an interest in politics?
     - Is work compatible with self-awareness?
     - Do works of art educate our perceptions?
     - Can one be indifferent to truth?
     - Is having a choice enough to make you free?
You have four hours.  Use them wisely.  Few students take less than the full four hours.  And God help you if “pencils down” is said before you’ve finished and tied it all together nicely.

Last minute looking over notes
Depending on what kind of college studies they’re planning, seniors will be in one filière, one educational lane, or another.  For the moment, those lanes are Literature, Economics, Science, Arts or Technology, although they’ve evolved over the years.  The 0-20 grade you get on the philosophy exam will be multiplied by a “coefficient” that varies depending on which lane you’re in:  multiplied x7 if you’re in Literature, x4 for economics, x3 for science and art.  (Don’t know what it is for technology.)  So if you get a 10 on the exam and you’re studying in the Literature lane, you chalk up only 70 points toward the total that will say “Open Sesame” to the School of Your Choice.  If you get a 15, you’re up by 35 points to 105 and things are looking rosey.
     Are you still with me?
     Other subjects also have coefficients - mostly 2, 3 or 4.  But philosophy is The King of All Subjects.
     There are options you can take to buff up your final bac score.  This is where knowing yet another language not on your curriculum can come in handy, including sign language and “regional languages” such as Basque, Corsican or Breton.  Also playing an instrument or a sport with proficiency can rack up a few extra points.  But you can add on only two such “extras”, so the emphasis is still squarely on the traditional curriculum:  math, science, history/geography...

Exams are both written and oral.  And scored 0 to 20.  If your written score is high enough, you get to go on to the frontal attack of the oral exam, which is another tense moment in and of itself, but most people are happy to have reached that stage
     And grading is tough in France.  When I arrived at the Sorbonne, with an A- average from University of Michigan, I was shocked at the relative mediocrity of my grades:  10 or 12, which in America would be viewed as average at best.  The professor explained that 20 was for God and 19 for the teacher; the most I could ever hope for was 18.  All you need to pass the written part of the bac is 10 out of 20.  If you get 8, you’re offered a second chance, with different questions of course.  As of 12, you get honors.  14 gets you High Honors and 16 will get you whatever comes after High Honors in France.
     Passing both written and oral parts is necessary to win the prize.  The baccalauréat.

Thank God, it's over! 
The age of students taking the bac varies, but 17 or 18 is the norm.  The questions are the same for all, regardless of age.  This year the youngest candidate will be 13.  The oldest?  91, a senior citizen who will be sitting down to the exam at the same time as his teen-age grandchild.
     Which personally I think merits some kind of celebration, especially if they both pass!

P.S.  Given what’s at stake, you can well imagine that knowing what questions are going to be asked would afford you an enormous advantage.  And there has been skullduggery in the past. Which explains why the test folders are kept in a safe inside a safe inside a safe, all 60 million copies of them.  It also explains why any misprints are not just thrown away but shredded.  No dumpster-diving possible.  If you understand French, take a look at this video from TF1:

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood

How you pick up your take-out in my neighborhood

After a major visit to the oral surgeon yesterday, it seems wise to eat Soft Stuff.  Which makes me immediately think of nouilles Pnomh Penh, a noodle dish (with little bits of Cut-Up Stuff) from the tiny Cambodian restaurant downhill.
     So off I go.

In spite of the warm sun, I'm glad I have a sweater because in my street there’s often a lot of wind.  And today is one of those days.  Japanese girls at the corner are buttoning up and looking somewhat like Marcel Marceau’s Bip walking into the wind.  There is a reason why the windmills were up here, near the top of the hill.  Walking on, it’s still blustery on the square, where my mild-mannered friend the accordionist is playing very Parisian melodies, as he always does around noon.  And true to form, once across the square and down those ten steps, the wind becomes... non-existent.  Talk about a mini-climate.
     First stop:  the little shop that sells newspapers, magazines, books and office supplies.  It’s Wednesday, the day that Pariscope comes out, a little magazine that contains everything going on in Paris all week:  plays, movies, concerts, lectures...
     As I’m coming out, I see a little boy - couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 - free-wheeling down the middle of the cobblestone street on one of those pedal-less plastic pre-tricycles only about a foot off the ground.  A man I’m presuming is his father runs behind him, trying to catch up, because... at the bottom of that street, only a few yards down, it feeds into the much busier rue des Abbesses shopping street.  To be fair, the kid ultimately has it under control and turns right, toward the curb of the sidewalk.  But as a mother, the whole thing doesn’t seem like a very well-thought idea to me, although it probably is building self-assurance in the kid... if he ever makes it to adulthood.
     Across the street is a florist who was trying to buy me a climbing hydrangea for my mini-garden.  Without much luck, so I tell him to put it off until my next stop.  It would only die for lack of daily care after my departure, even though two of my neighbors water the garden for me.  New plants need constant attention at first, until they settle in.  As we talk, the ginger cat from the corner grocery ambles up to nibble at one of the feathery-leafed plants, all the better to "cleanse" himself when he gets back home.  (Cat owners will understand.)  Everyone just calls him minou, French for “kitty”, but he doesn’t answer to that when I try... or to le chat or even Hey Cat!  Too busy eating the young florist’s plant, which doesn’t seem to bother either of them very much.
   Further down the rue des Abbesses, I stop in to say hello to my friend Manu, the Cave des Abbesses wine purveyor (See Sandy’s France, Feb. 23, 2013).  There’s a whole line of young people, some with babies strapped on in the hippy fashion, waiting to get in.  Then I remember that an American ex-pat has created a weekly event in the backroom bar, something an old friend of mine created out of a storeroom some... oh... 25 years ago. There’s barely time for the two-cheeked kiss before Manu has to put in an appearance, so I head on down the road, noodle-bound.

As I said, Le Cambodge is a tiny place.  Seating for 24 inside, around the display counter.  And when the sun is out three two-chair tables outside the front door, now that the sidewalk has been widened.  The owner greets me, in English, which he is determinedly trying to learn.  When his vocabulary runs out, we switch back into French, until the paying and good-bye part, which he’s got down pat in English.  He hands me a gift as I leave, a little container of sesame seed candies.  It’s the gesture that touches me.
     He and I have known each other since he opened this restaurant.  His hair is much greyer now. One day, when there was no one else around - and he was probably sad and maybe lonely for some reason - he told me about walking out of Cambodia all the way to Thailand.  His country was under Lon Nol’s murderous government then, and he had been separated from his family.  He was 7 and totally alone in a camp.  One day he just started walking.  Someone had pointed in a direction and told him Thailand was that way.  “Didn’t anyone stop you?” I asked him, amazed.  “I was just a little boy.  No one even saw me.”  As my architect friend would have said, “He didn't appear on their horizon.”  Distant uncles in France recovered him from the refugee camp in Thailand and brought him to France, where he ultimately opened this little place in my neighborhood, and I became a regular.  He has seen my children grow up, and I his.  That was 30-some years ago.
     I decide to take a longer way home, one with a gentler slope.  The ascension of Montmartre by the East Face.  And that takes me past the couscous restaurant.  Again I stop in.  I’ve known this place for at least as many years as the Cambodian one, back when the father owned it.  When he passed away, his son inherited it.  A totally different personality.  Far more effusive than the reserved but warm father with the gentle smile.  “It’s been a long time,” he chides me.  And it’s true that I haven’t been here yet this stay in Paris.  Maybe when my American friends arrive Friday.  His wife has been very ill with ovarian cancer and had to undergo surgery and then chemo.  She’s not here yet today for the lunch service, but she’s back at work after many, many months in bed.  With three boys, one still in middle school, and a restaurant to run, she would be sorely missed.  And her radiant smile would be missed by us all.

As I arrive back at the Café at the Foot of the Ten Steps, two different Oriental women are taking photos.  I ask the bemused waiter as I pass how many photos that makes.  He tells me he’s lost count.
     And as I cross the square, now devoid of accordion music, I encounter my neighbors off to lunch somewhere, husband, wife and golden retriever.  We shake hands and wish each other“Bon appétit!”
     Montmartre is a village.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Lotte à l'armoricaine

It’s a well-known fact that the French will leave the heads on anything. Chickens and their dangling heads hanging on hooks in the meat market, alongside little bunny rabbits with all their fur (and heads). Fish with their heads at the fishmonger’s, or right there on your plate in restaurants.  Sometimes you even see a whole calf’s head at the butcher’s. They’d be capable of putting an entire cow on display if they had the room, but mercifully they don’t.
     Monkfish is the only thing they never leave the head on.
     And there’s a reason for that.
     Have you ever seen a monkfish head?  Well, I hadn’t either, so I looked it up.  It’s positively prehistoric!  (Caution: If you’re pregnant or accompânied by a small child do not look up the photo.  You might have a miscarriage.  Or be woken up for weeks with the child having nightmares.  You have been warned.)
     In spite of its hideous head, or maybe because the Good Lord felt so sorry he’d made them so ugly, the body of the monkfish is delicious.  As dense as many meats and very flavorful.  Kind of like a fish steak, and not very fish-y tasting, so if you don’t like fish in general, keep an open mind here; you might surprise yourself.
     Monkfish is called lotte in French, and I’ve eaten a lotta lotte since I moved here.  At first it seemed to be always written on the menu as lotte à l’armoricaine.  Ar-mor being the Celtic name for the coastal area of Brittany, that sounded logical.  Coast.  Fishing.  Monkfish.  But then I started seeing it as lotte à l’américaine.  By then I’d learned French food snobs felt that anything américaine usually involved ketchup.  As there are indeed tomatoes in the recipe, it was logical, I guess.  And maybe some French food snobs weren’t as intelligent as they thought they were and had no idea what armoricaine actually meant, so they thought it was a mistake for American.
     Now I love America, but I’d prefer to think of this dish as Breton because that’s probably where I ate it for the first time... or maybe it was only in the Paris neighborhood around the Gare de Montparnasse, where all the Bretons arrive by train from Quimper, Brest, St. Malo or other Celtic ports.
     So lotte à l’armoricaine it is, and shall remain.  (Especially as the recipes I found for both seem extremely similar, if not identical.)  Here’s the recipe.

Preparation time:  20 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Serves 4

2 lbs (1 kg) of monkfish, cleaned by your fishmonger and cut into large pieces
1 medium can of peeled tomatoes
1 T tomato paste
4 shallots
1 clove garlic
12 small pearl onions
1 c (20 cl) dry white wine
1/4 c (5 cl) cognac
1½ T (20 g) butter
2 T of peanut oil
a “dosette” of saffron (those little plastic containers)
a bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, bay leaf)
1/3 c (70 g) of lobster bisque
a pinch of Cayenne pepper or a dash of tabasco
1 t salt, pepper to taste
1 full T of crème fraîche

- Peel and dice the shallots.  Peel and press the garlic clove.  Peel the pearl onions.  Open the can of tomatoes and cut them up.  Dilute the tomato paste in the white wine.
- In a cast iron pot, heat the butter and oil and cook the monkfish over medium-high heat until it starts to turn golden.  Add the cognac and light it (flamber).  When the flames have gone out, remove the fish to a serving plate.  Turn down the heat, put the shallots and all the other ingredients - except the crème fraîche -  into the pot, salt and pepper to taste and let simmer for 20 minutes, uncovered.
- Place the monkfish into the sauce, add the saffron, cover and let simmer for 20 minutes. If the sauce is too liquid, add a little bit of cornstarch or arrowroot to thicken.
- Remove from the heat and at the last minute, blend in the crème fraîche.

Accompany with rice or steamed/baked potatoes.
Serve with a dry white wine, if possible the same as used in the recipe

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Day Out - Château de Vincennes

Although I’ve lived in Paris half my life (which is a respectable number of years, said she, coyly), and I’ve seen pretty much every museum there is in the City of Light, there are some historic places I haven’t visited yet. Balzac’s home and the studio of painter Delacroix, for instance. The sewer system, by olfactory choice, although I have toured the catacombs.  The Gobelins Tapestry and the Sèvre Porcelain Manufactories, even though I’ve seen many of the treasures they’ve produced over the centuries in museums and castles - and homes! - across France.
     One place I’d never ventured out to is the Château de Vincennes.  After all, it’s outside Paris, all the way at the end of the Métro line.  Which is no excuse because Vincennes shares a border with the 12th arrondissement of Paris, and the steps up from the Métro deliver you directly to the drawbridge of the castle.
     That wrong has now been righted.  Twice.  In May, on a delightfully warm blue-sky day, a visiting friend from Ann Arbor and I went out to see what there was to see. But as it wasn’t a Sunday, we could visit just the ground and first floors; the rest is only visitable on Sundays at 11 am, and you need a reservation.  Now it’s November and I’ve made one, safe in the meteorological reassurance that Sunday would be as nice as Saturday. Which it definitely was not, thanks to thick fog.  So now I’ve been up to the top and I’ve seen... pretty much nothing except the immediate castle complex below and the man-made “Mountain” poking up through misty trees at the Zoo nearby.  No Notre-Dame.  No Eiffel Tower. No Sacré-Coeur.  It was definitely a case of Murphy’s Law:  All things being equal, you lose.

The visit of this castle won’t mean much to those who don’t know French history and to whom King Saint Louis sitting under his oak tree, meting out justice to his people, rings no bells.  Luckily for me, a lot has sunk in during my years here.  Especially the part about King Charles V.  (He and I once crossed paths on a daily basis, given that the building of the Université de Paris where I studied was Institut Charles V on rue Charles V in the Marais.)  And Charles V is the person we have most to thank for this vestige of the Middle Ages.
     Initially a hunting manor in a Forest of Vincennes five times larger than it now is - and it’s still very large - the castle became necessary when the last of the Capetian kings died and the French crown was up for grabs. One of the contenders was Edward III, king of England.  But the French, refusing to be ruled by an English king, decreed that it was illegal to inherit a crown through the maternal side of your family (a Salic law that still holds today although there is no longer a monarch).  That led to the Hundred Years War.  And thus the need for castles that would protect the crowned head of France.
     The dungeon at Vincennes is the tallest in Europe, say the documents.  It was built in record time in the mid-14th century. But an invading enemy king and army are a powerful incentive, I guess.  Although attacked and besieged, the dungeon has never been taken.  The walls are 3 meters thick.  That’s almost 10 feet.  And those walls, along with the floors and ceilings, contain something that wasn't used again for centuries:  iron reinforcement (clad in lead for good measure).  But to be functional as a residence, doors were needed in those walls, making them less strong, so a central column was added, along with arches to distribute the weight of the floors above.
     Vincennes is also the only remaining residence of a king of France, and it includes all the accouterments.  A deep well on the ground floor supplied not only the kitchens on this level for food preparation and cleaning, but also water for the entire building in case of siege, which happened several times in the Middle Ages and up to Napoleon Bonaparte.
     The next level up is the council room, with a large fireplace on the north wall and carvings on the consoles of the arches.  As the king of France ruled “by the will of God”, those carvings have a Biblical theme that blends four of the Old Testament prophets - possibly Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel - with the four Evangelists of the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
     Going up one more level
you enter the king’s bedroom.  To keep the huge room toasty warm, at least by medieval standards, an equally huge fireplace graces the west wall.  Normally this fireplace should be above the one in the council room, but it isn’t.  And there’s an ingenious reason for that:  the fireplace downstairs is directly under the king’s bed, which means the flue in the wall heated him at night.  Although the decoration on the hood of this majestic fireplace is barely visible, on the central ribs of the ceiling arches the original paint is much clearer.  There’s a reason for that too:  what the colors were made of.  The yellow is gold leaf, the blue is crushed lapis lazuli and the red, crushed rubies, no less.  After all, France was the richest and most populous country in Europe at that time so regal interior decoration had to rise to the occasion.  Spare the expense.
     One more flight up are quarters intended for the dauphin, the crown prince, but never used by him.  Above that, the guard’s room, with sand on the floor and wooden ceiling.  Above that, the battlements - where the splendid view is supposed to be but isn’t.  Above that?  Only God.
     As of the 16th century, the king went elsewhere and the dungeon took on a second life as a prison. In the small tower rooms, one at each corner, including those used previously as a chapel or a study, prisoners were kept. Famous prisoners, chronologically including future king Henri IV the Protestant - although it was said it was for his own protection - and later the Sun King’s light-fingered Finance Minister Nicolas Fouquet, and later still the infamous Marquis de Sade.  Some, being nobles, had their cells decorated with paintings that are still visible.  Others just settled for scratching their names into the walls, including one poor Sergeant Dupin in 1850, a political prisoner who visibly wanted all to know the details of his detention.

After a dizzying descent in the corkscrew stairway, fresh air is what’s needed.  You can take a walk over to the Chapel, fashioned after the Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cité.  Started by Charles V, it remained in a truncated version until completed almost two centuries later. Sometimes exhibits are held inside; in May it was a vast collection of posters from the World War I era, including some xenophobic ones that reflected France’s hatred of Germany.
     This time the chapel is empty.  But all of a sudden I hear the sound of horse hooves.  I come out just in time to see armored knights and fair ladies passing by.  Christmas just weeks off and on some week-ends the old castle is alive with jousting and falconry, jugglers, fire-eaters and other medieval things.  Plus le Père Noël, aka Santa Claus.
     A way to tie together eight centuries of history.  In spite of the fog.

My thanks to Rémi Perrenoud, the wonderful guide who brought the castle to life with his vivid descriptions, and who lamented with me the total lack of visibility from the much-touted battlements.  I promised him I'd go back when there was something to see... or rather the ability to see it.

Château de Vincennes

Avenue de Paris
94300 Vincennes

Métro:  Château de Vincennes

Open:  May 21 - Sept 22: 10-6 
& Sept 23 - May 20: 10-5
Closed Jan 1, May 1, Nov 1, Nov 11 & Dec 25
Tours Sunday 11 am, by reservation only

Entry:  8.50 & 5.50 €,  Free under age 18

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Soupe au crabe et aux asperges

There were many things that surprised and amazed me when I moved to Paris.  Many had to do with cooking and eating.  Lunches were long, and they were the biggest meal of the day.  That has changed because French lunch breaks are no longer two hours long.  Except for business lunches.
     The table was - and still is - set differently, with the spoon all alone at the top of the plate and the fork turned over on its tines.
     Lettuce was never cut; you had to learn to fold it into bite-sized parcels using your knife and fork, which is a real challenge, on a par with learning to use chopsticks.
     And asparagus was white.
     Americans think of asparagus as a thin green vegetable.  That’s because a) it’s a different variety and b) it’s grown above ground, allowing it to produce the chlorophyll that makes the green color. French asparagus was traditionally grown in rows of mounded earth, never seeing the sun until it was harvested.  That makes it not only white, but much more tender.  And the taste is less bitter.
     Lately green asparagus has made great inroads, maybe because it's more labor-friendly, but that's only a hypothesis on my part.  Maybe it's just a fad.  Or maybe the green type can be harvested faster.
     Both are delicious.  I prefer my green asparagus in cooked dishes or else grilled over charcoal and then served warm with only a dribble of balsamic vinegar.  But white asparagus can’t be beat as an appetizer.  Or in a soup.
     As May is a good month for fresh asparagus, here’s a recipe that’s easy and fast to make.   Plus it leaves you with asparagus tips to use in another dish!

  • 1/3 stick (50 g) butter
  • 2 shallots, finely diced
  • fresh (i.e. uncooked) stems from one bunch of white asparagus
  • 4 T (40 g) flour
  • 3 c (70 cl) water in which the asparagus was cooked
  • 3 c (70 cl) milk
  • 8 oz (220 g) canned crab
  • ½c (10 cl) crème fraîche
  • cilantro
  • 1 t salt
  • freshly-ground pepper 

- Cut off the tips of the asparagus and set them aside for another dish.  (You could grill them and serve them over a good steak with sautéed fresh mushrooms.)
- Cut off the tough end of the asparagus stems and peel off the hard outer layer of skin.
- Melt the butter, but don’t let it brown.
- Dice the shallots and sweat them until they’re translucent.
- Meanwhile, boil the asparagus stems for 3-4 minutes.  Remove them from the water, but don’t throw the water out.
- Add the flour to the shallots, stir and lower the heat.  Simmer for 1 min.
- Pour in 3 c of the water used to cook the asparagus.
- Add the milk and salt and bring to a boil, then let simmer for 15 min.
- Remove any cartilage from the crab.
- Mix the asparagus and the liquid in a blender, then strain.
- Stir in the crème fraîche and pour into individual bowls.
- Decorate with the crab and cilantro.

Crème fraîche isn’t always handy, and when it is, it can be pricy.  According to Julia Child, French cream has a butterfat content of 30%, which makes it comparable to American whipping cream.  “If it is allowed to thicken with a little buttermilk, it will taste quite a bit like French cream, can be boiled without curdling, and will keep for 10 days or more under refrigeration.”  By “a little buttermilk”, Julia means 1 T of buttermilk for 1 c of whipping cream.  You just heat it a bit, NOT to boiling by any means, pour it into a partially-covered jar and let stand for a few hours.  Then stir and refrigerate.